Restaurants, Weddings and Titles: Social Conventions Convey More Than We Think by Libby DuPont

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dupont_libbyWhat do you do when you walk into a restaurant? Even a child as young as three could list the steps. Walk in. Get seated with menus. Server takes drink orders. Server takes entrée orders. Appetizers come, followed by salads and entrees. The server offers dessert. Then comes the check. It is so common a formula that even in other countries it doesn’t fluctuate much.

We don’t think much about it, but it’s a system that works. When we walk into a new restaurant for the first time, we are free to take in the atmosphere and enjoy the food because we are not concerned with trying to guess what kind of food they have in the back or how we might go about eating some of it.

God created the universe in an order, and as the high point of that creation, we humans thrive on order. This is why we have things like traffic laws. There is a certain level of order that is necessary for things to actually get done. Yet in our society today, there is kind of a general sense that certain conventions of etiquette are passé, or even harmful. While certain things can be filed under “trivial”, others are in place for good reasons.

A good example for differentiating the two is wedding planning. I got married in New Jersey, where people don sparkly, grown-up prom dresses to the reception, host lavish multi-course meals and generally go all out. As I was marrying a Midwesterner, certain items that seemed absolutely necessary to my family seemed ridiculous to my Beloved and his family. We had to look at the different items of etiquette and ask, “Is this central to people feeling welcome and comfortable, or is it an artificial expectation designed to feed a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality?” The line was not always clear.

I think we navigated it fairly well. For example, we decided that table assignments were necessary because the majority of folks were from New Jersey, where it is the custom, and without them, they would be wandering around wondering what to do. We also saw it as a small mercy to certain folks who didn’t know many people. We sat them with folks we knew would be friendly and welcoming. We decided that despite my mother’s protests, no one would be adversely affected by the lack of tissue paper in the invitations, and the fact that we gave a reply postcard instead of a card and an envelope.

Today I think we need to take a critical look at the conventions we are getting rid of, to be sure that we aren’t losing the baby with the bathwater. For example, I would be in favor of bringing back some sort of blanket social rule for what kids call adults. Some of my peers have been uncomfortable with being called “Mr. or Mrs. So and So”, and have told kids that a first name is just fine. Others ask their children to use adults’ titles and last names. Others use a conglomerate of title and first name. The result is a weird mixture of things that kids end up calling adults. When I was growing up, we called any adult by their title and last name. I still refer to my parents’ friends that way. Maybe it was formal, but at least people knew what to do. Behind this issue is not merely awkward party conversation but a methodology of what we want our children to learn about authority, relationships and respect.

If I may be so bold, I would suggest a more serious loss of social convention now exists in marriage. Back in the Old Days there used to be general social norms that people followed in forming families. They would date, meet one another’s families, get married and then start a family. With the current social acceptance of premarital sex and cohabitation, the new norm seems to be to date, begin sleeping together, move in together and then decide to get married. Generally, people still try to wait until after marriage for children but not always. Since this is in the culture, many people today are simply following societal norms when they proceed in this order. I know many wonderful people who have, so I don’t want this to come off as a condemnatory rant. It is not intended that way.

However, I think the new order of things calls into question the meaning of marriage. Whereas, for millennia it was a public expression of a couple’s commitment and the beginning of their new life together, the fact that many couples today are already living together seems to suggest that marriage is simply a celebration of the couple’s love. The shift is now from marriage as an institution of stability for society and children to being about only the bride and groom. Of course it should be about their love. But not entirely.

Finally, I think we need to think critically before throwing out norms that have been in place for millennia in the Church. There is a reason why the Catholic Church moves so slowly. She knows that small changes make a difference in the faith of her members. That is why it is so important for parishes and priests to follow the norms for Liturgy, for instance. Although it was not the intent of Vatican II, certain changes made after the Council, designed to make people more comfortable with God have led to a decreased devotion to the Eucharist and even an abandonment of faith in the Real Presence of Jesus in that Sacrament. As humans, we need to use our bodies to express the sacredness of the liturgy.

Not all change in social convention is bad. I for one am grateful that I don’t have to figure out which fork to use when dining with friends (normally there is just one, and often it’s plastic), or which color shoe and gloves to wear based on the calendar. However, I think it is worth looking critically at what is behind a certain convention before tossing it out. What is at stake could very well be the simultaneous abandonment of the virtue that act was meant to encourage.

Copyright 2010 Libby DuPont

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